Tom Bourdon was one of three DE&I experts who conceived the Pandemic Resource Guide, created during the COVID-19 pandemic to highlight the very best practices to establish a culture of inclusivity for employees, customers, business partners and stakeholders.
Bourdon served as co-editor and contributor, and helped mobilize over 20 additional DE&I professionals to take part in creating this collective resource guide, released in August 2020 by The Partnership, Inc.
The following excerpt was written by Bourdon. The entire guide can be accessed at: https://www.thepartnershipinc.org/pandemic-resource-guide/
By February 2020, Time magazine was already referring to the Coronavirus outbreak as “the world’s largest work-from-home experiment.” According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of Americans ‘telecommuting’ had already been on the rise, increasing by 159% between 2005-2017. In mid-April 2020, as the first wave of COVID-19 was beginning to peak, Gallup reported that 62% of the current US workforce was ‘working off-site at least some of the time’ (compared to 39% in 2012 and 43% in 2016).
However, vast disparities exist in terms of who is able to work remotely. 2018 Bureau of Labor data indicated that of the 29% of the workforce who reported having the ability to work from home, there were large variances based on:
- economic status (‘class’): only 9% in the bottom quartile vs. 61% in the top quartile.
- industry (e.g. 57% in finance compared to 8% in leisure/hospitality);
- race (37% of Asian workers, 29.9% White, 19.7% Black/African American, 16.2% Hispanic/Latinx)
For those who are able to remain employed and work remotely during a pandemic, this perceived privilege can also be laden with both task-oriented and social challenges. It is important to consider this through a diversity and inclusion lens: no employee’s remote work situation will be the same, and some will be faced with more challenging circumstances than others.
Varying ‘at-home’ circumstances
Having an adequate workspace where one can have uninterrupted focus can prove to be a challenge for many. This could be based on multiple factors such as smaller living quarters, sharing space with family members and roommates, or living somewhere with competing distractions both inside and outside of the home. Not everyone has the opportunity to step away from work in order to take a break, such as individuals who are not physically capable of doing so, people who live in multiple-unit living/densely populated areas, and those who are tied down by caretaker responsibilities.
Balancing remote work with family and household demands can create significant challenges for individuals. COVID-19 eradicated many people’s support-infrastructure (friends, relatives, babysitters, school/daycare, etc.), drastically changing the work/life balance. Navigating ‘pandemic parenting’ has become a completely new phenomenon, putting an even greater burden on individuals with special needs for accommodations, single parents, and mothers. Patriarchal systems have still proven to impose a disproportionate amount of domestic and caregiver responsibilities (cooking, cleaning, caretaking, etc.) on women. As author Eve Rodsky recently questioned: Are men texting their friends homeschool tips? All of these challenges are further compounded for people with fewer financial resources as well as marginalized individuals who are simultaneously dealing with additional forms of oppression, such as racism, homo/bi/transphobia, and nationalism/xenophobia.
Remote work also frequently requires a high degree of reliance on technology. Many cannot afford a fast internet connection, which can have a negative impact on one’s speed, efficiency, ability to communicate effectively and stress-level. Virtual challenges can be further compounded based on where someone resides (with both remote and urban areas be subject to connectivity issues), as well as the number of household members attempting to stream off the same modem. Even more frustration and anxiety can be expected for those who are less for familiar or comfortable with newer technology, a common challenge experienced by older individuals.
- Recognize that employees will have very different experiences when working remotely. Be empathetic to the unique challenges they are facing.
- Be flexible and willing to adjust expectations during this time.
- Be supportive and empower associates in a way that sets them up for success. Trust your employees to do the best they can during such unusual circumstances.
A more natural fit for some than others
While some are already familiar with remote work and others may easily make the adjustment, there will always be a subset of employees for whom remote working is not be the most ideal situation. Even if all at-home and pandemic-related challenges were to be removed, many would still experience additional obstacles.
When suddenly being forced to work remotely, even top-performers may face challenges such as lack of motivation, the inability to focus, the urge to procrastinate, finding it difficult to collaborate, and technological frustrations like screen fatigue or feeling uncomfortable on camera. Others may have a hard time setting personal boundaries, stepping away from work for a break, and being able to ‘shut down’ at the end of the workday. These experiences may be viewed as personality-driven, but could also relate to factors such as if a person is an introvert/extrovert, one’s communication and work style, attention deficit issues (ADD/ADHD), and even an individual’s confidence level.
For individuals who are in the minority or already feel ‘out of place’ at work (e.g. being one of the few people of color or gender non-conforming people within the organization), a sudden shift to remote work could further compound previously existing challenges. Without the right support, being situated in an unnatural and uncomfortable remote work-environment could impact an employees’ productivity, sense of belonging and overall satisfaction in work.
- Consider working-remotely a learned skill. Be patient with those who require more time and assistance adjusting. Create a safe environment for employees to identify and cope with challenges they are experiencing.
- Understand that while some struggle with remote work, this is not a direct indication of their ability, intention or willingness to try and do their best.
- Realize that for marginalized employees, pre-pandemic challenges may become compounded in a remote work situation. Some struggles may be difficult to acknowledge or put into words.
- Don’t assume what someone is experiencing. Take the time to check in with people on a ‘human’ level. Discuss their remote work experience, ask if there is any way you can be of support, and be sure to follow up so it’s not a ‘one-and-done’ conversation.
Health and Wellness
Countless studies indicate that minorities (such as Black, Hispanic/Latinx, LGBTQIA+, veterans and those of lower socioeconomic status) experience much higher frequencies of health disparities. The devastation brought upon these communities by COVID-19 has once again proven this to be true. It’s no wonder so many have said, ‘When America gets a cold, Black America catches pneumonia.’
Pandemic ‘stay at home’ orders can increase and create new health/wellness challenges for remote workers, including isolation, acute and chronic stress, anxiety, depression and physical illness. It can also generate brand new challenges for those already receiving workplace accommodations and associates who have new needs.
Being confined to home can also be quite dangerous for those whose safety is in jeopardy due to Intimate Partner Violence (IPV). According to the World Health Organization (WHO): “(IPV) occurs in all settings and among all socioeconomic, religious and cultural groups. The overwhelming global burden of IPV is borne by women.” For employees who could occasionally escape from home to the workplace prior to the pandemic, even this has shifted.
When working remotely, pre-existing and new health/wellness challenges can impact one’s ability to do their job as well as their overall well-being. In the chaotic and uncertain throes of a pandemic, it can be extremely challenging for individuals to focus on taking care of themselves and seek out/get help.
- Be a trusted resource for those who might be struggling, but don’t feel the pressure to have all the answers. At the very least, be willing to listen and not pass judgement.
- Be an ally and advocate for individuals in need of health and wellness related support and accommodations.
- Identify and promote both company-sponsored and reputable public resources that support health and wellness.
- Emphasize the importance of self-care. Lead by example and model behavior that supports a wellness-mindset. Create opportunities for willing team members to also share how they are supporting their own health and wellness while working remotely.
Inclusion and Belonging
A remote work environment can still uphold undesirable and inequitable dynamics that benefit the majority while negatively impacting those underrepresented. This means people of color, women, LGBTQIA+ and others who have previously dealt with microaggressions and bias in the workplace can continue to experience this in their homes. This can happen by being left off virtual meeting invites, not having one’s opinion asked or acknowledged, being spoken over, getting assigned more menial work, not getting to participate in special assignments, not having your contributions recognized, etc.
Events impacting minority communities outside of work will also have an emotional toll on diverse employees. For instance, the Black community has been hit extra hard in 2020 by both COVID-19 and the ongoing racial violence and injustices that are finally receiving heightened attention by the media and Black Lives Matter movement. For these matters to be completely ignored or handled inappropriately in a work environment makes these experience so much more devastating for employees experiencing this pain first-hand.
Having to code-switch and work so much harder than others to fit-in and get-by is exhausting, and in no way brings out the best in employees.
- Pay even more attention to the experience employees are having. Typical underlying indicators (such as reading body language and group dynamics) are even harder to identify when teams are remote.
- Be sensitive to the experiences of others. Carefully identify what extra steps might be necessary to support associates who might feel more isolated or left-out.
- Advocate for even more support around D&I initiatives such as trainings on bias/ microaggression/valuing difference and Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). When isolated during a crisis, affinity group support is needed by employees more than ever.
- Encourage your company to take a stand in publicly supporting movements, legislation, and organizations that uphold diversity, equity and inclusion.
While a work-from-home/remote work situation can create a great deal of challenges, it can also provide companies and their employees with more opportunities. ‘The world’s largest work-from-home experiment’ has taught organizations many things. Diverse employees are discovering brand new ways to build community, create meaningful connections and have an impact. More leaders are recognizing the critical importance of staying authentically connected with their employees and treating them like humans rather than worker-bees. Companies are understanding the value of putting people above profits, and recognizing that if their associates don’t take care of themselves, they can’t bring their best selves to work…even if that work is being done at their own kitchen table.